Ohio Senate should follow House’s lead on judgeship

There’s a reason for the GOP-led Ohio Senate to quickly pass a House bill that eliminates the vacant judgeship in the Youngstown Municipal Court. Any opposition — read that, preservation of the status quo — should be weighed against the opinion of the chief justice of the Ohio Supreme Court, Maureen O’Connor, the Mahoning County Bar Association and the chairman of the county Democratic Party, David Betras.

It is worth noting that Democrats have long occupied the three judgeships in the city municipal court. In other words, Chairman Betras is advocating the elimination of an office that he knows would be filled by a Democrat — as it was by Judge Robert A. Douglas Jr. who retired Aug. 1.

The senators should also take into consideration that two Democrats, Robert Hagan of Youngstown and Ronald Gerberry of Austintown, were the chief sponsors of the bill passed Wednesday in the House. The vote was 76-12. Finally, the Senate should take note of the fact that Republican Gov. John Kasich, following the advice of the chief justice, did not appoint a successor to Judge Douglas, whose term expires in December 2013. The governor urged the General Assembly to eliminate the position.

The shrill protestations of Youngstown Clerk of Courts Sarah Brown Clark, Councilwoman Annie Gillam and others ignore the fact that almost two decades ago, then Mayor Patrick J. Ungaro made the same argument that’s being made today: the caseload of the court does not justify three judges, and neither does the declining population of the city of Youngstown.

The municipal court and the clerk of courts office carry a hefty price tag. The city spends more than $2 million a year for the court, and more than $1.8 million for the clerk of courts office. They have close to 80 employees.

All that for a city with a population of about 65,000 and a caseload of 13,000-plus — 4,421 cases per judge. The state average is 9,629 cases per judge, which means that Douglas and his two colleagues, Robert Milich and Elizabeth Kobly, weren’t breaking a sweat on the bench. Even with the elimination of the one judgeship, Milich and Kobly would handle approximately 6,600 cases — still significantly less than the state average.

It should be noted that the Youngstown court also has a full-time magistrate.

There isn’t enough work to begin justifying three judgeships.

First major step

Senate passage of the House bill — Sen. Joe Schiavoni, D-33rd, whose district includes Youngstown, has a good working relationship with Republican leaders — will be the first major step toward the larger goal: The reorganization of the court system in Mahoning County below the common pleas level.

Chief Justice O’Connor, along with the bar association, Atty. Betras and officials of the National Center of State Courts who have studied the judicial system, support the creation of a countywide court that would replace the municipal courts in Youngstown, Campbell and Struthers, the four county courts and the mayor’s courts.

The Vindicator began advocating the elimination of the lesser courts more than two decades ago, but special interests and political inertia blocked any serious consideration of the proposed changes.

Now, the Ohio General Assembly, along with Gov. Kasich, can strike a blow for good public policy — and give Republicans some of the bragging rights.

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